Estrellita "Lo" Berry always shared a concern for the health of others.
Even in first grade at College Hill Elementary, she wondered why some of the classmates seemed to be in better condition in terms of attitude, physical appearance or physical health.
"I always bee-lined to those who seemed to have more medical problems," said Berry, 58.
Those early days of having a caring attitude led to a career in the health profession, and now Berry serves as president and CEO of REACHUP (Respond, Educate, Advocate and Collaborate for Health in Underserved Populations), a community nonprofit that seeks to help communities with health care challenges.
Berry first started working in the maternal child health arena 15 years ago as head of the Central Hillsborough Healthy Start Project in the University of South Florida's College of Public Health. That effort helped reduce the African-American infant mortality rate for its targeted area from 19.2 per 1,000 births in 1998 to 9.4 per 1,000 births in 2010.
With the help of USF College of Public Health Dean Donna J. Peterson, REACHUP was born out of the Healthy Start effort in 2009. In four years, it has gone from two social service programs to 11, impacting community health in a number of areas including obesity, health care access and male inclusion.
Berry recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about REACHUP's efforts and the recent announcement that she's a finalist for the Florida Blue Foundation Sapphire Award.
How did you get into this line of work?
I came from the mental health arena to this arena. My entire career, up until 15 years ago, was primarily working in what you call tertiary care. I was working with families who had children in their homes that were severely emotionally, physically and sexually abused. I was working with kids who were exiting the state hospitals and psychiatric units and seeing the greatest of problems and the greatest of medical ills and social ills. One day I woke up and said maybe I need to be working on the other end, on the prevention side, so I can do something that is going to change practices and policies and behaviors so I could stop seeing those horrific outcomes.
The No. 1 reason for infant mortality and disparity for African-Americans is babies being born pre-term and low birth weight. What has your group done to reduce pre-term and low birth weight births?
We've done many things. I call it collective impact. It's not so much what one entity has done but what we've done as a collective and as a community. When you're talking about addressing low birth weight, pre-term, we know there are unacceptable rates across the country. It's not just here in Hillsborough County. But some of the fundamental causes in racial disparities lie in social environment, lie in community action, lie in changing health behaviors, lie in addressing multiple social determinants of health, such as early childhood development, family resilience, social support, health care access, education, housing, labor and transportation. With REACHUP, what we do is connect and interface with various organizations for our clients. For example, access to care is really important, so we subcontract with churches to provide transportation for women to make sure they get to their doctor appointments.
A big part of your efforts involved getting fathers involved, and you will hold your annual Affirming Fathers Conference April 30 through May 2. Why is it important to involve fathers?
Women tend to have healthier babies, and birth weights are higher, when males are engaged and involved in their care. We want the men to go to the doctor appointments. We want the men to know what the mother's routine is. We want the men to exercise themselves and exercise with the mothers. We want the men to learn ahead of time about what is to be expected in the caring and rearing of the children. We want them to be willing to participate in that care. And what we really want them to do is promote breast-feeding. Women tend to breast-feed more if the men encourage it.
I think some people on the outside looking in tend to vilify the people you're serving.
One of the reasons I've shied away from it — and I'm told all the time, "Lo, you need to get out there and talk about what you're doing" — is because people turn it into a negative. You have to be careful about how you present the data. In spite of the playing field not being level, in spite of all the social ills, these people still prevail and still have the outcomes that they do. We still have people who work. We still have families that are intact. We still have families whose primary desire is for their children to have a better life than they've had. I'm always concerned that when you start talking about infant mortality and disparity, people are going to say, "That's just some poor black people who need to eat right and do things better." But it is more than just eating right. This is about personal and social responsibility
What do you gain from being nominated for the Sapphire Award and having your accomplishments validated?
I was very surprised and really humbled. I really do see it as a reward for myself, my staff, my team and the board. There is no way I could be where I am if I didn't have the passionate and devoted team that I have. We see ourselves as conduits to bring out what's inside of people already.
What keeps you going?
My faith and my belief that every person deserves the right to good health. I truly believe that. I'm a firm believer that if we work in unison — different social services, funders and stakeholders — we can move that needle towards improved outcomes for everyone. With personal and social will, we can get people to be healthier. The other thing? It still bothers me that babies die before their first birthday. It's so bothersome to know a baby died before its first birthday and it was preventable. I think REACHUP has an important role in ushering greatness into this world and I think we do.
You never know, the baby you save may be the one who finds a cure for the cancer or the next president of the United States.
We truly believe that. We provide a platform that these young babies can become what they were destined or purposed to be. I'm one of those persons that was blessed to see my purpose in life and to walk it out. I just want the same thing for others, so they can live beyond their first birthday.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.